Waiting on Cyber’s Billy Mitchell

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Reid Hottel
  • 333rd Training Squadron
"The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out."
- Sir B. H. Liddell-Hart

Heritage -- As a military, and increasingly as a branch of service, we look back on the valor and courage of our predecessor's achievements and wish to emulate those actions. However, the same heritage that we draw lessons from can just as easily stall progress if it is viewed as a concrete doctrine and not as an inspirational foundation.  

Though the Air Force is the youngest branch of service, we have defined what it means to be on the cutting edge of battle technology. From the purchase of a Wright Model A to the fifth-generation fighters of today, we've pushed the technology of armed aerial combat further than anyone in the world. But it didn't start out that way.

The British and French were far ahead of us in the utilization of combat aircraft when Billy Mitchell, then a lieutenant colonel, set up central headquarters for the U.S. Army's aviation section in Paris during World War I. Billy Mitchell, promoted to brigadier general for wartime operations, left Europe victorious and with a deep fundamental understanding of the necessity of airpower for future war. 

Mitchell came home determined to prove the utility and capability of focused air power. In doing so, he challenged his peers and superiors. Mitchell recognized a new domain in which to fight, one that spanned both land and sea. He was so passionate that the future war would be won through the air that he was willing to lose friends and make enemies with his determined, then considered abrasive, tactics and revolutionary demonstrations. 

Mitchell said, "The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation's destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air."

For his abrasiveness in pushing air power and his defiance of "standard" doctrine, Mitchell was court-martialed and later resigned. Mitchell still advocated for air power after his resignation, but died before seeing his dream fully realized with the birth of the Air Force in 1947. His vindication, more importantly his confirmation, came years later when President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously elevated Mitchell's rank to major general, publicly recognizing his contributions to air power, and awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal. 

The parallels between Mitchell's era and today are clearly visible. We have new technology developed in the United States, disseminated throughout the world, allowing us to execute "warfare" in a brand new domain -- the cyber domain. This domain spans land, sea, air and space. Unlike aviation or space, which require costly vehicles, ratings and licenses to become involved, the entrance ticket to the cyber domain is carried around in the pockets of nearly every pre-teen or older person in the world. Cyberspace has outpaced aviation in becoming a civilian, military and commercial behemoth that permeates our daily lives.

Friedrich Engels, a German social scientist, author, political theorist, philosopher and father of Marxist theory in the mid-1800s, noted, "As soon as technological advances may be applied to military goals, and furthermore are already used for military purposes, they almost immediately seem obligatory, and also often go against the will of the commanders in triggering changes or even revolutions in the modes of combat."

As a military, we are responding to the ever growing cyber threat. U.S. Cyber Command stood up in 2009, and prior to that, the Air Force led the way in adding "cyberspace" to its core mission. These are certainly initial steps forward, but in a 2009 article of IAnewsletter (http://iac.dtic.mil/iatac), Lt. Col Gregory Conti and Col. John Surdu stated, "[The Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force] operate in the kinetic arena, the directed application of physical force, whereas cyber warfare exists in the non-kinetic world of information flows, network protocols, and hardware and software vulnerabilities. Both kinetic and non-kinetic operations are critical components of warfighting, and the current ad hoc solution of small pockets of cyber warfare capability within the existing services is not as effective as it could be." 

These men believe a separate cyber branch of service is needed, and that the existing culture of the branches is not conducive to cultivating, and subsequently retaining, the technical skills needed to succeed in this new domain.

I, respectfully, disagree. Yes, the heritage of our Air Force has been one of kinetic aerial domination with a major focus on acquiring the technology to maintain air superiority. The winds of change are blowing. In 2011, our core doctrine document, AFDD-1, was updated to reflect the control and exploitation of cyberspace as integral to who we are and what we do. This proves that that the Air Force is clearly willing to change its culture. This willingness to change, as a service, was born out of the belief and yearning for dramatic cultural change instilled in our core by forward-thinking heroes like Billy Mitchell. However, we may not being doing all that is necessary to help it come to fruition. 

We must view our heritage as one defined by the domination of new domains of war, not simply as domination of the skies.

The cyber world is relatively new, and those who have reached the peak leadership positions around our Air Force spent most of their careers in an environment of Air Force success being defined through aircraft. These leaders are being placed into key positions and tasked with leading cyber information warfare after building their leadership foundations in conventional kinetic warfare. Currently, the Air War College's basic curriculum features only one core six-hour class that mentions cyberspace in its description and requires only four hours of electives. Of the 108 hours' worth of electives from which leaders can choose, only eight hours mention cyberspace in their content. Essentially, you're only going to run into cyberspace material at Air War College if you search for it. Our leaders need the same demonstrations of cyber power that Mitchell displayed when he sunk the Ostfriesland. 

Moreover, there is no formalized recognition for those who are "at the peak of their game" in the cyber community. As a military, we recognize the contribution of those who put their bodies in harm's way, but if we're honest with ourselves, we do not view the contributions in the information realm to be analogous. This was demonstrated perfectly in the 2013 Distinguished Warfare Medal debate, order of precedence of the medal notwithstanding, when a proposed medal for remotely-piloted aircraft and cyber troops was sidelined due to public outrage. 

This lack of respect and recognition for their contribution does not go unnoticed by the skilled men and women working in the cyberspace domain. The attrition rate of cyber specialists is in part due to a failure in recognition that prevents them from feeling a part of, or contribution to, the fight. When private enterprise or a three-letter agency offers more money and a sense of feeling needed, they are willing to leave. 

So, we wait for our Billy Mitchell, a leader who recognizes that other nations are pouring money into their cyber warriors, and that we do not have as much control over the cyber battlefield as we need.  We wait for a leader who is not afraid to demand attention and resources be placed on developing our capabilities further, even in the face of the aerial tradition of our service. 

Mitchell's vision of air power was born in the fires of World War I.  In 2012, the Pentagon reported 10 million cyber infiltration attempts on its information each day.  So make no mistake, the fires are burning.  We are in the Cyber-World War.

I believe cyber's General Mitchell is out there somewhere already.  A person in a position of authority, who may not fully understand the cyber world, but recognizes its necessity for future war -- I implore you to step up, speak out and dare to lead us.  We need you!